A Game for 2 Players: Risk and Relationship in Zathura

While feeling under the weather last week, I crawled into bed with my laptop and watched Zathura for the first time in six years. There’s nothing esoteric about this film; it’s a cozy, good-looking, action-packed, well-paced movie for kids, or adults in need of comfort. It’s a closed-room drama, taking place entirely in a home—albeit one that spends most of the story floating around in outer space—and centering exclusively on a family, a father and three children. A robot and some space lizards show up partway through, but all the human characters are part of the same family.

zathura house in space

The film opens agreeably enough, with ten-year-old Walter playing catch with his father while six-year-old Danny watches from the porch steps. Father and son are smiling and relaxed. Walter is good at catching and throwing, and dialogue is confined to remarks like “Nice grab.”

Suddenly the dad announces that Walter’s time is up. Walter protests, but his dad tells him he’s had his twenty-five throws and it’s Danny’s turn now. “That’s not fair,” Walter says. His dad replies, “It’s exactly fair.” Danny tells his brother, “You’re not the only one who gets a turn.” Walter mimics him in a whiny sing-song; the dad tells them to stop. He needs to get on with Danny’s turn so he can work for an hour and get ready for a presentation that afternoon. Playing catch with his boys is only one item on a full to-do list. In a matter of moments, the happy family scene has soured.

Unlike Walter, Danny can’t catch or throw well. His dad makes excuses for him, incorrectly blaming himself for a bad throw, and offers a constant stream of instruction and encouragement that Walter didn’t need. Clearly, twenty-five throws for Danny will be a slow and agonizing thing for Walter to watch. Walter is visibly angry; it’s like he’s being punished for competence. This is the universal and unwinnable struggle of parenthood: trying to divide limited time, attention, and resources among kids who aren’t the same and never will be. No matter how hard the dad tries to be fair, he will never really succeed. Someone will always feel cheated.

zathura boys sofa

Tensions escalate inside the house. It’s a lovely old spacious Craftsman bungalow, filled with nooks, bookcases, hardwood paneling, enormous fireplaces, a dumbwaiter, and a huge basement, but the boys don’t like it; they think it’s creepy. Walter tells his dad, “I like Mom’s better.” His dad replies, “Well, so did she, and now it’s hers.”

Family conflict drives this plot. It’s the force behind everything that happens. The parents’ divorce, though seldom spoken of directly, poisons the atmosphere, aggravating the rivalry between the brothers. Walter and Danny have their established patterns of hostility, and they fight by rote like an old married couple deep in the grip of mutual contempt. Walter is abrupt and vicious; Danny cheats and manipulates. They are habitually competitive, seeing themselves strictly in comparison to each other. When Danny laments that Walter is better than he is at sports, his father consoles him by praising his vivid imagination, and Danny asks, “Is it better than Walter’s?”

Eventually the brothers’ enmity turns physical, destroying their father’s work project. Worn and frustrated, the dad leaves for the office to print another copy. The boys are now alone except for a terrifying teenage sister, played by a surprisingly expressive pre-Twilight Kristin Stewart. One of the funniest things about this film is that resentful as the brothers are of each other, they are united in their fear of Lisa. Even after meteors wreck the living room and the house is discovered to be adrift in space, the boys quail at the prospect of waking their sleeping sister.

Pictured: acting.

Pictured: acting.

The weirdness starts when Danny finds a board game called Zathura: A Space Adventure. It has an appealingly retro fifties sci-fi look, with metal spaceship markers, an analog control panel, and a hand-cranked key. Danny asks Walter to play it with him, but Walter dismisses it with barely a glance, saying it’s for babies. He’s not even capable of evaluating the game on its own merits; he rejects it because Danny likes it.

zathura game box danny walter

Danny starts playing anyway. He turns the key and presses the red GO button; the game spits out a card printed on yellowed paper, and the red spaceship advances on the board. The card reads, Meteor shower. Take evasive action. Moments later, actual meteors start punching through the ceiling and destroying the house. It doesn’t take the boys long to figure out that whatever the cards say ends up happening in real life.

zathura meteors

Walter finds instructions printed inside the box. Do you have what it takes to navigate the galaxy? It’s not for the faint of heart. For once you embark upon your journey, there’s no turning back until Zathura’s reached. Pieces reset at the end of each game. Walter deduces that the only way out is through, and if they keep playing the game to the end, they’ll make it back home and everything will be all right.

Walter’s logic is sound, but Danny abandons the game, which, besides the meteor shower, has by now produced a homicidal robot and frozen Lisa in cryogenic sleep. Walter pleads and reasons, but Danny refuses to play, saying, “All I know is that when we play this game, bad things happen.” Walter can’t advance the game by himself because it’s not his turn. As it says on the box, Zathura is A GAME FOR 2 PLAYERS.

zathura game board 2

This is a poignant picture of the tragedy of divorce: the story stops because someone quits. It doesn’t “finish” in the sense of reaching fulfillment and completion at the end of a long life of vows faithfully and lovingly kept; it just ceases and doesn’t resume. Marriage, like Zathura, is a game for two players, and if one of them leaves the game, no one can move on. The focus of Zathura is the relationship between the brothers, but the specter of the parents’ failed marriage is never far off.

Eventually Danny agrees to play again, and the game spits out some more cards, which quickly become reality. The cards don’t appear to get reused; they are freshly generated turn by turn, making the game open to infinite possibilities. Soon the boys are visited by Zorgons, enormous man-eating space lizards, but in the next move they rescue a stranded astronaut who has been stuck in the game for fifteen years and knows how to keep the Zorgons away. Overall, things are looking up.

zathura astronaut

Then betrayal brings their progress to a hideous grinding halt. While no one’s watching, Danny cheats by moving his spaceship game piece ahead on the board.

Walter is furious. The astronaut tries to smooth things over, but diplomacy is useless. Danny really did cheat; no amount of mitigation will change that. Worse still, when Walter moves his brother’s game piece back where it belongs, the game accuses him of cheating and ejects him right out of the house.

Of course this isn’t fair. If anyone should be ejected from the game, it’s the one who actually did the cheating. But here again, the game mimics marriage. One person cheats, the other suffers. That’s how cheating works.

The astronaut manages to get Walter back into the house, but Danny’s betrayal rankles. And on his next turn, Walter gets an opportunity for revenge.

From the beginning of the film the boys have made no secret of their grievances with each other, and they have acted on them with ruthless consistency. Danny wants to be better than Walter, so he cheats to get ahead of him. Walter just resents Danny’s very existence. He wishes his brother had never been born. When he draws a gold card that says Shooting star, make a wish as it passes, he has a chance to make his wish come true.

The astronaut manages to talk him out of it, and once the crisis is past he reveals that fifteen years ago, he, too, drew a gold card and wished his own brother out of existence. He’s been stuck in the game ever since, alone with his remorse, battling Zorgons and getting sucked through time sphincters, unable to advance or go home. He is Walter, future Walter, Walter as he will become if he remains on his present course. And present ten-year-old Walter holds the power to show mercy and make things right for everyone.

Zathura

People make much of the importance of communication in relationships, and it really is important, but free and accurate expression of thoughts and emotions will only take us so far. Our problem is not merely (or even mostly) that we fail to communicate clearly; our problem is that we are selfish beings. Danny really does cheat and whine and use weakness to make people feel sorry for him; Walter has a runaway temper. They don’t have some epiphany of renewed understanding at the end of the film; they’ve understood each other pretty well all along, and throughout the game, each has had to deal with the other’s very real faults, made worse by the additional stress of being pelted by meteors and pursued by Zorgons. By the time the credits roll they haven’t really demonstrated any improved behavior, but things are not as they were. Danny has finally owned up to his cheating and apologized for it, and Walter has decided that whatever Danny’s faults may be, the two of them are brothers, and as such they will take care of each other.

As I rewatched this movie, I found myself thinking about an ebook I’d read recently called Romance in a Month: Guide to Writing a Romance in 30 Days. (Don’t judge. It’s a good book.) In one chapter the author outlines the plot points of a romance novel. (Are you judging? Don’t do that. Plot points are useful tools of craft, and after reading about these I was able to identify them in the works of Jane Austen.)

After the Meet, wherein the hero and heroine…well…meet, there is something called the Lock-In, wherein something compels them to spend significant time together whether they want to or not. Next comes the Main Conflict, which can be tied to circumstances but ought to arise primarily from clashes between the core values of the two characters. This conflict will not be easily resolved. Because of the characters’ growing attraction, though, they ignore the conflict as long as they can or adopt some temporary compromise, and soon they reach the Realization Point, at which time they realize that they are more than friends and cannot back out without emotional pain. Whatever happens next, life cannot go back to how it was before. The conflict escalates; it can no longer be smoothed over or ignored; and the characters go through the Big Bad Breakup. The breakup ought not to be some flimsy thing based on simple misunderstanding; it should be an occasion for genuine grief, and all hope should appear to be lost.

And then comes something really beautiful, something that could not exist apart from the raw anguish of the breakup: the Grand Romantic Moment. One of the characters—or both characters, if it happens to work out that way—must make a move to restore the relationship. The author must not do some cheap deus ex machina thing where circumstances suddenly conspire to bring the hero and heroine together and remove their difficulties. At this point both characters want desperately to be together, but neither knows how the other feels. Whoever takes the initiative undergoes real and tremendous risk. There could be exquisite fulfillment and lasting happiness ahead, or a fresh wave of rejection, humiliation, and pain. There is no way of knowing until the move is made.

Marriage is an arrangement not unlike Zathura. It is a decision to bind your fate to that of a fellow fallible human being in a thing where you will see each other at your absolute best and worst. Do you have what it takes? It’s not for the faint of heart. There will be trouble, and possibly man-eating lizards, but also high adventure, breathtaking spacescapes, and depths of love and trust you never knew were possible.

zathura go button

The Empty Ring

My friend Jim at Therefore Now Ministries recently wrote a piece on why marriage is objectively better than living together—not merely for reasons of moral soundness, but because it’s just better, more desirable, more satisfying. Jim was right on as usual, and as I read his words, I suddenly remembered a strange and terrifying situation I heard about some years ago.

A man met a woman at a strip club or whatever those places are called now. He was a patron; she was an employee. They developed a relationship, and she moved into his high-dollar home in a Dallas suburb. She quit her job and became a full-time homemaker, cooking for this guy and keeping his house.

In a way this sounds like a cushy deal for her. She didn’t have to work her sexually degrading job anymore. She had no childcare duties. She had a nice well-furnished house to live in and good food to eat, and all she had to do in return was keep the place clean, cook appetizing meals from expensive ingredients in a spacious kitchen with new high-dollar appliances, and provide pleasant company for the guy. Sexual favors would certainly be expected, but at least she had just one man to satisfy, which had to be an improvement over whatever she was doing before.

Okay, so I tried for the sake of argument to make the above scenario sound reasonably attractive, but I guess there’s really no way to do that. Basically this was high-end, white-collar prostitution.

For Christmas the man gave the woman an engagement ring minus the diamond. The space inside the prongs was substantial; it would take a big stone to fill it. He said he would buy the stone after she proved that she was “The One.”

empty ring

What kind of man does that?! And what kind of standards might such a man have for housekeeping? With so much time on her hands the woman ought to be able to produce some exquisite meals as well as keep the house in pristine condition. She would constantly labor under the pressure of expectations, both spoken and unspoken. She would feel perpetually off-balance, never sure if she had done enough. They say that when you marry for money, you will earn every penny. I imagine that when you provide sexual and housekeeping services for money, you will earn it even more. And of course it was for money. What woman would enter into an arrangement like that for love? What could love possibly have to do with it?

This is the legalist view of the Christian walk. We have been taken out of a former degrading way of life and moved into a clean, respectable environment, but we must prove our worthiness to be there through constant performance. It’s not that we believe we earn our salvation—that would be bad doctrine—but we hold to a vague idea of some higher level of God’s favor that makes a Christian truly legit. Home schooling, natural living, daily “quiet times”—whatever activity or combination of activities our particular group has deemed essential in separating serious Christians from shallow fire-insurance dabblers, we must persist in doing them if we want to keep in good standing with God. We can never be sure we are doing enough; we are edgy and anxious. We have been given a costly gift, but it’s defined by its emptiness, prongs outstretched like the fingers of a grasping hand. Who would want to wear such a thing?

In this construct we are not a bride but a whore. And God is not a loving husband but a man of business, dispensing payment for services rendered. In the place of sacrifice, we have a bloodless commercial arrangement.

God’s love is nothing like this. It is a wild reckless passion culminating in an unbreakable lifelong commitment. It is unilateral: nothing we can do or leave undone will ever lessen or increase its strength. It is permanent: God will never walk away. It is more than duty: he maintains the same intensity of love for us always. He doesn’t get disillusioned; he never had any illusions to lose. We may fool others and ourselves with silly posturing, but he sees all—the hidden sins, the laziness, the lust, the greed, the moral weakness—and he chose us anyway. In his eyes we are precious and lovely and will remain that way forever.

God doesn’t offer an empty ring.

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

Song of Solomon 8:6

Underneath the Canopy

It was the sort of middle-of-the-night wake-up experienced by all parents who don’t have nannies. A young daughter was wailing at our bedroom door, covered in what until recently had been the contents of her stomach. I had a moment of real horror as my sleep-addled mind tried to make sense of facial features distorted by globules of half-digested food, but I soon figured out what was up and went off to deal with the consequences. The child needed a bath and a fresh nightgown, and the double bed she shared with her sister needed a change of sheets. There was some spot-cleaning of the carpet to be done as well.

My memory of this night is hazy, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t quite finished the clean-up before my other daughter evacuated her own stomach. Like her sister, she threw up in the bed, which once again had to be stripped. Soon the second set of sheets was piled on the laundry room floor, awaiting its turn in the washer.

The girls continued this horrific tandem for some hours. They didn’t once make it to the toilet before throwing up. For dinner we’d had beef stew with paprika, faint traces of which were to remain in the hallway for the lifetime of the light-colored carpet. Eventually Greg hauled in a cooler and put it in the girls’ room as a sort of vomiting trough. By now all the double-bed sheets in the house were in need of laundering, so I lined their mattress with towels.

Meanwhile, our son was having gastric distress of his own. Unlike his sisters, who were burning up with fever, he didn’t appear to have a virus. He’d been suffering for some weeks from a stomach malady similar to mine, which continues to intermittently plague us both to this day. Also unlike his sisters, he took himself to the bathroom in a rational manner rather than throwing up in his bed or on the floor. It was a small blessing, but I was grateful for it.

On my hands and knees scrubbing carpet at 2 a.m., I remarked to my husband that I suddenly didn’t feel so good myself. Soon after, I too was busy being violently ill. Greg manfully got dressed for work in spite of his own growing nausea, but he didn’t make it past the garage.

For the next few days Greg and I languished in bed, weak and horribly sick. Periodically one or the other of us would creep out of bed long enough to make sure the kids were all alive and accounted for. They had recovered quickly and were now enjoying a sort of holiday, free from parental restraint, living on crackers and staging imaginative games all over the house. At one point I was startled to find Emilie with her hair standing on end and her arms and legs striped with what appeared to be tribal tattoos. On investigation these turned out to be lines of green dinosaur footprints from a rolling rubber stamp. I couldn’t figure out what the deal was with her hair, and I didn’t care. I went back to bed.

For Greg and me, the days ran together in a blur of nausea, fever, muscle aches, and restless sleep. Somewhere in the midst of all that, one of us realized it was the eighteenth of January. We weakly wished each other a happy anniversary and went on sipping our tea.

It wasn’t our best anniversary, but the whole thing was affirming in a way, because I realized that if I had to be bedridden with a body-wracking stomach virus, there was no one I’d rather be doing it with.

Today Greg and I have been married for twenty-three years. Our relationship now is different than when we went on our first date at age twenty, more than half our lives ago. The difference is one of perspective and experience. It is like seeing a forest from a distance—from your car, say—and then seeing it again from inside. From far off you can see the canopy, shrouded with fog or burnished with sunlight or rolling with cloud shadows. There is something ineffable in your perception, a mystery and grandeur which are conditional on the distance. You can look at the forest, daydream, even doze a little. But to get out of your car and hoof it into the forest is to enter into a new set of experiences. You see roots, rocks, leaf litter, animal tracks; you feel the texture of bark with your hand; you smell the pine rosin in the air; you hear the call of frogs from the branches overhead. Each tree trunk has its own character, and the leaves that from a distance were just a mass of green now have individual sizes and shapes and tints. You have moved from possibility to particularity.

Marriage as a romantic idea is not the same as marriage as a reality. The reality is not a diminished thing; it’s a different thing, a more developed thing. Our culture is full of dispiriting representations of a settled marriage with the shine long gone—nagging wives, listless husbands, unfulfilled promises, dead dreams. There is real bitterness behind the mockery and the tropes. This is all wrong.

But so is the idea that for romantic love to be valid, it has to keep the palpable sensation of ineffability it had in the beginning. This is like doubting that you’re in the forest because you can’t see the canopy anymore. The wonderful truth is, the canopy hasn’t gone away; it’s just over your head now, sheltering and containing you. It’s not less real than the pine cones and twigs and acorns that you can physically see. It’s there. Maybe once in a while you’ll climb a tall tree to the very top, like Bilbo did, and get a glimpse of the canopy from the middle, with all the black butterflies dipping and flitting in the sunlight.

bilbo-above-mirkwood

This has been a rough year. There have been blessings that I’m thankful for, and bright spots I would revisit if I could, but overall it’s been wrenching. No sooner do we get one thing somewhat under control than we’re blindsided by something else; often I’m exhausted before even leaving my bed in the morning. And once again, I can say in all honesty that though my circumstances are trying, there’s no one I’d rather be in them with than my husband. I hope and pray for times of refreshment in the year to come, but I’m confident that I’m walking in the forest with someone I can count on. I’ve seen him keep his feet under him and his wits about him in situations that would crater some men; I’ve watched him really listen while I poured out my fears and frustrations, and heard him offer compassionate wisdom when I was tapped out.

If you are happily married and have been for some decades, you know what I’m talking about. If you aren’t married yet, I would ask this. Who do you want with you when all hell breaks loose? Because break loose it will. Life will knock you upside the head and bludgeon the daylights out of you. I say this as one who believes in the goodness and sovereignty of God. There is ultimate purpose in suffering as in all things, but we almost never know what that purpose is. Suffering just hurts. Who do you want by your side when life brings out the very worst and best in you? Choose someone faithful and durable, who’ll bolster you during self-doubt, recognize and point out when one or both of you need to adjust course, and remind you of your most precious convictions and deepest passions. Someone who takes vows seriously and is wholly and irrevocably committed to you personally. Someone you can trust.

It’s more comfortable to look at a forest from a car than to walk around inside one; you can avoid bugs and blisters, and you can daydream about Lothlórien. But that’s as far as it’ll ever go. You will see beauty and mystery magnified by distance, but you will never really know.

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was the constant impact of something very close and intimate, yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant–in a word, real.

~C.S. Lewis

My Better Half

I nearly lost my temper the other day. Someone got under my skin with a thoughtless question arising from false assumptions, and within seconds I was ready to fire back a terse, cutting response. A few well-placed keystrokes would teach my questioner to choose her words a little more carefully in the future—or possibly even avoid asking me anything again, at all, ever.

Some small restraining influence whispered that maybe a full artillery barrage wasn’t called for here, that maybe I ought to be less of a hard-nose and exercise a little patience. But I did need to make some sort of response, and soon.

So I went to my husband and asked for his help.

Greg immediately stopped what he was doing, listened to the facts of the case, and guided me away from the biting retort that was fomenting just behind my fingertips and toward a thoughtful, well-reasoned reply. He even came up with a couple of sample sentences to get me going. He was completely right, and I told him so.

He brushed off my thanks. “You’d have seen it yourself by morning,” he said.

That, of course, was the whole point. Once past the heat of the moment, I’d have understood what sort of response was really needed. But I didn’t have time to wait to calm down. Asking Greg’s help was like taking a shortcut through the future.

When I submit a manuscript to my writers’ group for critique, I don’t give equal weight to every comment from every person. I sift and consider, keep and discard, taking into account what I know about the individual making the suggestion. Some writers have irrational hang-ups about commas; some eschew past perfect tense with maniacal zeal; some just don’t “get” certain genres. My estimation of a given critiquer’s sense, taste, and judgment is a function of my history with him. Is he a good, seasoned, experienced writer? Does he understand the demands of the marketplace? Have I agreed in the past with his critiques of other people’s work? If so, I’m likely to take his advice.

A lot of the edits I end up keeping are things I would have caught myself if I’d let the story rest a couple of weeks and returned to it with fresh eyes. But the rushed nature of magazine work often makes the cool-down period a luxury I can’t afford. And sometimes a good critiquing partner will make a brilliant suggestion for something I never would have come up with no matter how much time I took.

When you think about it, trust is an amazing thing. It involves placing yourself in the hands of another, giving up control, often acting contrary to your own instincts, all on the strength of a personal association. It’s risky. The decision you make based on a friend’s advice could go south, leaving you embarrassed, frustrated, and wishing you’d kept your own counsel. But risk is the gateway to adventure, opening up possibilities which would otherwise remain forever closed.

Surrender is frightening but exhilarating, and, if your trust is well-founded, sweet indeed. A lifelong companion, close as your own skin, a worthy guardian of your sacred trust, one who shares your vision and your experience, is the finest blessing this side of heaven. Such a one might rightly be called your “better half.” In your weaker moments, he steers you toward that which your own better self—your calm, objective, rational self—would choose. But he is no mere doppelganger or shadow-twin, existing only to complete or validate you. He is himself, distinct and matchless.

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant—in a word, real.

~C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Of Love, Insanity, and Large Amounts of Money

I love looking through bridal magazines with my teenage daughters, but not for the reasons the editors suppose. We have two of these magazines in the house and go through them every few months for a gut-busting, endorphin-inducing laugh fest. These magazines are fun the way a Brendan Fraser mummy movie is fun, only the makers of the mummy movie don’t expect you to take it seriously.

Since our kids were small, Greg and I have worked to make them aware of marketing ploys. They have a healthy cynicism toward advertising in general, and most magazines are more ads than articles. Magazine editors know which side their proverbial bread is buttered on, and they don’t print articles that will hurt their advertisers. Ads and articles work together to create a construct of an artificial universe, as detailed and bizarre as you’d find in a fantasy novel.

Judging from the pages of bridal magazines, marketing professionals operate under the assumption that most American women are criminally insane.

Witness the postures and facial expressions of models in bridal gown ads—hips outthrust, heads tilted at defiant angles, elbows pushed forward to articulate the toned deltoids , eyes narrowed in hostility, upper lips curled in Billy Idol sneers.

The brides aren’t the only ones with thinly veiled violent impulses. In one ad, a bride is flanked by two bridesmaids in red who look past her at each other, clearly plotting to kill her. (Judging by the look on her face, she deserves it.) And watch out for the mother of the bride! She is typically thirty years of age, with the body of a dedicated athlete and risqué taste in clothing. If I’m reading her face right, she’s planning to poison the bridal party and snag the groom.

Each magazine has a couple of ads devoted to the tuxedo-wearing members of the wedding party. The groom might as well have a dialogue bubble coming out of his mouth, proclaiming, “I’m whupped.” You have only to look at his vapid countenance to know he’s handed over his manhood on a doily-lined platter.

In ads that aren’t pushing tuxedos, men are used as props. One memorable ad featured an individual my girls now refer to as the Nude Dude. A bride in an elaborate gown stands high on a metal staircase, while a naked man, presumably the groom, ascends the steps. Most of him is in shadow, but one side of bare rear is plainly visible. She looks down on him from her superior elevation with a look of…I don’t know what. Hostility, maybe, or aggressive narcissism. Just what chain of events is supposed to have led to this scenario? And just what are the advertisers trying to sell? I don’t remember what product was being pitched, and there’s no way to find out, because Emilie long ago removed this shocking image from her magazine and put it in the trash can where it belonged.

Anna likes to make up captions for the photos. “Who needs the groom? I have my reflection to look at!” “Still not recovered from the bachelorette party…” “I guess we had to have a brunette in here somewhere!” “You want me to walk down that aisle? Over my dead body.” “Can we get a chiropractor over here?” “Forget the wedding…I’m on a Quest for Self.” “If that photo goes on Facebook, you’re dead. Then I’m defriending you.”

The photo features are softer and gentler than the ads; the women shown here are not so much criminally insane as just plain insane. One of our favorites is a montage set outdoors. A waiflike, ethereal blonde bride and two blonde flower girls traipse through pastoral settings in a series of frothy, dainty gowns, accompanied by a retinue of farm animals. Anyone at all familiar with livestock and pasture grass knows how crazy this is, but since when has reality gotten in the way of a photo feature? In one shot, the bride, who appears to have popped too many Valiums, holds a little lamb in the lap of a $3,990 ecru floral lace dress. The fluffy-haired flower girl, obviously a vampire child, casts a sardonic sidelong glance as if she knows what the lamb is about to do to the dress. In another, the bride reclines in a meadow, wearing an ivory strapless gown with flocked tulle skirt ($1,650), an ivory waist cincher ($385), and a headpiece that appears to be made of meringue ($345); she carries an ivory fan ($235). I cringe at the thought of what the grass seed heads will do to the transparent netted lace of the skirt.

The Q and A columns are fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way. The questions betray an appalling lack of empathy and sense. “I want to go to Las Vegas for my bachelorette party, but my bridesmaids say they can’t afford it,” says one questioner. “How do I get them to change their minds?” Another says, “My mom is a recovering alcoholic. Since she and my dad are paying for the wedding, they are insisting that the reception be alcohol-free. I think that would be unfair to our guests. How can I get around this?” Could the writers be making up the questions? One can only hope.

During a recent run-through of bride magazines, Emilie was particularly aghast at an article on how to make your fiancé give up his tacky décor and furnishings. The substance of Emilie’s impassioned response: How about if we assume men have something like “feelings” and respect them as fellow human beings rather than treating them as pawns in our little game? How about if you remember it’s his home too?

This is a radical concept for most modern brides, who’ve had it drilled into them lifelong that men are there for nagging and remaking. Most relationship advice found in print media boils down to instructions for how to disguise your nagging and make it more effective. It really chaps my hide…but that’s a subject for another blog post.

A typical American wedding costs more than my Suburban did when it was new. Marketers know that weddings are hotbeds of performance anxiety, unarticulated expectations, primal impulses, unresolved family conflict, and body image malaise; they prey on our insecurities as parents, providers, lovers. My own girls are feisty and smart; they see men as rational creatures, not fashion accessories, and show admirable resistance to blind consumerism. A few of the saner magazine images have found their way to Emilie’s bedroom wall—and that’s fine. I’m confident in my daughters’ ability to keep their wits about them and choose wisely when their time comes.

…And That’s Just the First Twenty Years!

There’s a particular sort of joy that’s unique to the beginning of a marriage, when you look down at the unwritten page of your life together, pick up a pen, and start to write. You move into your first one-bedroom apartment. Gosh, look at all that space! You take the antique table you bought with earnings from a waitress job, put it in the bay window, and stand back and marvel at how perfectly it fits. You mesh your stuff with his stuff, shelve your books side by side, hang your clothes together in the narrow closet. You learn that he likes the toilet paper roll to hang the opposite way to what you’re used to, and you immediately switch to his way because you love him so much. You get the apartment in order and regard it with awe. This is your space, at least for the duration of the lease. You no longer have to end each evening with one of you going home. This is your home now. It didn’t exist before you made it.

You can’t believe how blessed you are. He takes such good care of you! He knows you better than anyone and he still loves you—and considers himself as blessed as you know you are.

Challenges come: little irritations and big decisions, financial upheavals, a pregnancy with complications, no money. And that’s just the first year! Now is the time to show what you’re made of. Will you trust God and follow him, the way you said you would when everything was golden and the future was just an idea?

A few years ago I read Michael Pearl’s excellent article about the three laws of reaping and sowing. Basically, you reap what you sow, you reap after you sow, and you reap more than you sow. “We have sowed a little faithfulness to God,” Pearl says, “and he has multiplied our seeds and returned them one-hundred fold. We have loved him a little, and he has loved us much. We have honored him feebly and he has honored us royally.”

Greg and I have seen a disproportionate abundance of blessing in our own marriage and family. I look back now on some of our early ideas and actions and just laugh. We weren’t materially wrong, just young and inexperienced. But we knew we were young and inexperienced. We knew we didn’t have all the wisdom we’d need, but we did know enough to fear God and follow his way, and trusted him to provide the wisdom we didn’t yet have. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5).

I’m amazed by pictures of us as newlyweds. Greg’s hair was redder then—it’s almost auburn now—and our faces were so youthful. I look at my husband now and I see lines of wisdom and humor around the eyes, and they’re precious to me because I was there when they were written. I understand his hot keys, and he understands mine; sometimes we run interference for each other, sometimes just offer silent sympathy. Someone in a crowd says something absurd or infuriating; I catch Greg’s eye, and without a flicker of changed expression we understand each other. We can get through the moment because we know later we’ll laugh or commiserate together. We dream together, brainstorm together, work together, sharpen each other like iron on iron. He’s my lover, fellow laborer, best friend.